PITTSBURGH (AP) — Clint Hurdle likes one-run games. Good thing, because the Pittsburgh Pirates haven't given their manager much choice.
Less than two weeks into the regular season, the Pirates have already played in eight games decided by the slimmest of margins. They've won four of them, including victories in Arizona on Tuesday and Wednesday that ended a rough nine-game West Coast trip on a high note.
"The beauty though of a one-run game is it really lays it out for the players about the execution level," Hurdle said. "It heightens the focus for me and I think it's good that we're playing those games early. It shows what kind of club we are."
What the Pirates are, it appears, is determined.
Pittsburgh (5-7) won three of its final four games during its swing through Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arizona despite an anemic offense that ranks last in the majors in batting average (.205) and runs (26).
Put another way, the Pirates scored four more times over 12 games than the Pittsburgh Penguins have scored in the first four games of their playoff series with Philadelphia.
Yet Pittsburgh returns to PNC Park on Friday for a weekend set with defending World Series champion St. Louis invigorated after winning a road series against the Diamondbacks for the first time since 2005.
"The last few days we've been doing a great job of pitching, playing defense and timely hitting," third baseman Pedro Alvarez said. "It's going to win us some ballgames. We've just got to keep the ball rolling as best we can."
Getting the ball in play would help.
The Pirates have just six homers and have yet to score more than five runs in a game. Still, they've hung around behind stellar pitching despite starting the season without expected ace A.J. Burnett — who is recovering from a right orbital bone fracture — and having All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan limited by tightness in his hamstring.
The injuries have forced Hurdle to get creative. Journeyman reliever Juan Cruz earned the save in the two victories at Arizona and reliever Brad Lincoln picked up the victory on Wednesday less than 24 hours after being called up when starter Jeff Karstens went to the 15-day disabled list with inflammation in his right (throwing) shoulder.
Lincoln didn't sleep Tuesday night, instead packing his things at Triple A Indianapolis then boarding a cross-country flight that landed at 6:30 a.m. local time Wednesday. Barely eight hours later, he tossed three shutout innings in relief of starter James McDonald.
"It was definitely a long night for me," Lincoln said. "That's part of the job. You've got to come in and be prepared for the game."
Lincoln could move into the rotation while Karstens sits and Burnett continues his rehab, though it's just as likely he'll be the long reliever out of the bullpen. He's up for whatever Hurdle needs, an ethos that's repeated throughout the clubhouse.
The hitters know, however, they can't keep relying on the pitching staff to bail them out.
"I think we have too much offensive talent to continue this for too long," infielder Casey McGehee said. "We haven't scored many runs but we have been in just about every game."
And been undaunted in the late innings. The Pirates rallied against Arizona starter Daniel Hudson on Wednesday with Alvarez providing a timely home run to tie the game at one. Neil Walker knocked in the game-winning run the next inning with an RBI-single.
Alvarez's homer was predicted in the dugout before he sent a pitch sailing over the fence and into the Pittsburgh bullpen, a sign of the optimism the energetic Hurdle has brought to the clubhouse.
"Good things happen when you make good contact," Alvarez said. "That's the mentality we keep having."
Snapping out of a season-opening funk at the plate won't be easy against the Cardinals. Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse are scheduled to start for St. Louis. Their combined record this season is 6-0 with Lynn's 1.50 ERA the best of the bunch.
"However we can get those runs across is what we're going to do," Alvarez said. "That's grinding it out every pitch and fighting until the end."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.